Staff Therapist Allen-Michael Lewis featured in Philadelphia Magazine: How to Mentally, Emotionally and Financially Survive the Holidays, According to the Pros

December 6, 2021 | Local nutritionists, therapists, and financial advisors share how to best navigate your relationship with food and family, manage money, and cope with loss this time of year.

Though it may seem like everything is full of cheer this time of year, it’s no secret that stress levels go up during the holiday season with all the additional tasks, activities, and projects we take on. There are added expectations with family and friends, the pressure to purchase gifts, travel arrangements that need to be made, and for some, maybe even coping with the absence of a loved one. Whatever the situation is, it’s important to recognize that the holidays don’t look the same for everyone.

That’s why we talked to some Philly-area wellness professionals about navigating the uneasiness that can often surface this time of year. Below, find their tips for managing holiday stress and prioritizing physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, and financial health, even when it may seem most difficult.

Nutrition and Food

Whether it’s grandma’s apple pie, cookie platters from neighbors, or a prime rib that could feed an army, food somehow always seems to steal the spotlight during the holidays. This can add an extra layer of anxiety to the season, especially for those whose relationship with food is complicated. Colleen Reichmann, clinical psychologist and founder of Rittenhouse’s Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image, and Dalina Soto, founder of and registered dietitian nutritionist at Nutritiously Yours LLC (Northern Liberties, Center City, and virtual), share ways to navigate that relationship and avoid getting completely overwhelmed at the dinner table.

What’s Tough

Soto: Around the holidays, we have been conditioned to think that we have to go all out and eat everything and unbutton your pants and lay on the couch all day, and then wake up the next morning and do a turkey run. I feel like that is such a toxic way of thinking. Plus, the marketing around the holidays is about ‘all or nothing’ instead of ‘enjoy the food and savor it.’

Reichmann: There is also all the diet chatter, especially with January being right around the corner. It is this weird mix of we are all supposed to be excited about the food, but then the diet chatter is constantly there now through the end of January. That can be really anxiety-provoking.

How to Cope

Soto: The worst thing anyone can do is some sort of cleanse or restriction diet; it adds fuel to the fire. Focus on eating consistently, eating enough, nourishing your body, allowing your body to feel good, and exercising consistently. This is for the long run. You have to think of your health as a forever thing, not just during the holiday season. Also, it’s helpful to remember that nobody can tell you how much or how little to eat — it’s your body, your choice, your plate, your business. That is easier said than done in many families, but the goal is to center yourself and honor what your body needs. Plan some responses ahead of time of what you can say to family members, or speak to them before you get to the event to set some gentle boundaries.

Words of Wisdom

Reichmann: I think Glennon Doyle’s words of “We Can Do Hard Things”are really important for the holiday season to just remind yourself that you can do hard things even though there may be times that seem or are harder than others. You can get through it if you remind yourself of that and don’t forget to breathe.

Soto: Reaching out for help is super important, especially if you are in a dark place when it comes to food. Talk to a professional. You do not have to do it alone. You can ask for help and be prepared, you still have time to start healing.

Family Dynamics

The idea of everyone in your family all under one roof during the holidays can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be demanding and overwhelming, especially if extended family members decide to crash at your place or you’re constantly getting asked intrusive personal questions about marriage, babies, and jobs. South Philly-based licensed psychotherapist Akua Boateng and Allen-Michael Lewis, staff therapist at Council for Relationships’s Center City location, offer tips on how to keep calm through it all.

What’s Tough

Lewis: Some of the biggest stressors I see this time of year with couples are family dynamics, finances, and the logistics of what it looks like for the holidays and the end of the year. With these different stressors, the conversations sometimes change from ‘us versus this thing’ to ‘me versus you.’ The conversation will feel like ‘it is me versus my partner’ when really it is both of you trying to tackle the stressor. It’s important to take a step back and recognize you are on the same team.

How to Cope

Boateng: When it comes to a relationship with a significant other, it’s important for you and your partner to talk about some of the struggles that you have, and to create a space where you can express your feelings about the family dynamics, plus discuss your expectations of what you’d like to see and do. Hopefully you have an atmosphere in your relationship where you can begin that dialogue and find a safe space to talk. If not, it is okay to find another safe space, whether it be a friend or therapist, to express how you feel.

Lewis: It’s also okay to be assertive when you get boundary-pressing questions. I think sometimes we are told that in order to be assertive you need to be aggressive, but you can be assertive while being kind and gentle. You have the authority to leave and separate yourself to block more pressure from happening. Also, conversing with your partner and having a semblance of how you’re going to escape a situation if it starts to feel very awkward is helpful.

Words of Wisdom

Boateng: Give yourself permission to have the space to grieve the idea in your mind of what you believe the holiday should be about. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves the time and the space to actually just be disappointed. We can regulate and move through that emotion in a safe and a healthy way. Leading up to the holidays, it’s important to have a vision of what your holiday looks like. If it is one that is filled with ease, relaxation and joy, you can begin to make decisions that align with that overall vision. It’s also okay to welcome new ideas and opportunities that the holidays can bring.

Financial Management

It seems like the holiday season is characterized by the notion that you have to spend your hard-earned money in order to please others through gift-giving. That can be tough for many folks, especially after such a trying year and a half. River Nice, founder of Philly-based remote company Be Intentional Financial LLC, shares what financial stressors they often see this time of year, plus what individuals can do to stay on track financially during this time.

What’s Tough

What I have seen from my clients is that most people don’t really think ahead for how much money they are going to spend on extra food and gifts. They just kind of wait and then suddenly it’s late November and they think, “I have to buy a bunch of gifts,” and then spend all this money without planning ahead of time on how much they can actually afford. Another big thing is travel. If you don’t live where the holiday celebration happens in your family, you might need some plane tickets or a road trip to get there.

How to Cope

Almost everyone has shame, guilt, anxiety or some form of hard feelings about money, and that is because money is essential to every aspect of everyone’s lives. I hope that folks start being more willing to talk about money and their specific financial situations because that is how we undo some of the shame and harm. You can start with the friends you trust the most and say, “Look, this is my struggle this year. I can’t afford to do anything or buy anything, so either let’s celebrate another way, or can you help me talk through how I am going to talk to my parents about this?” Getting support from people you know will have your back can make it easier to approach others who are more of a challenge to discuss this with.

Words of Wisdom

You are not a bad person if you are struggling financially. The reason I named my business “Be Intentional Financial” is because that is my number one piece of advice: To be intentional with what you’ve got. (And rather than thinking about debt as a personal or moral failing, consider how it might have been a tool that helped you get through a situation, and now you just need a plan so that the debt doesn’t keep hurting you in the long run.) I am teaching a group program called Take Control of Your Money, which is designed to give everyone the education on how to manage their money. The end of the year can be a really great opportunity to reevaluate and make plans for the upcoming year, and make sure that you can financially prepare yourself to prioritize what you want to prioritize next year.

Grief and Loss

Maneuvering through grief during the holidays can be difficult. Ashley Herr, a licensed professional counselor at The Center for Loss and Bereavement in Skippack, gives tips on how to feel your feelings, honor your loss, and not feel guilty for your moments of joy.

What’s Tough

One of the biggest things that grieving individuals struggle with around the holidays is the feeling that someone’s missing. With that comes many questions: Do you attend family gatherings? What will that feel like? Do you still decorate? I think families and individuals really struggle with what feels right, and sometimes when you do these activities, it’s hard.

Within a family unit, there also may be very different perspectives and thoughts on what should be done to honor someone. It’s important to encourage open communication throughout the holidays to anticipate the more difficult moments. Be mindful of different cultural experiences and reactions to grief. When we see someone grieving, we have our own expectation of how we think it should look, but it is so important to remember that grief is unique to each person, even within the same family unit. Try not to judge.

How to Cope

The holidays are overwhelming, even for someone who is not grieving. You feel the pressure from other people to do holiday activities, decorate and buy presents, and sometimes those things are just too much. Lowering expectations and giving yourself grace to slow down and ask for help if you need it is incredibly important. In turn, that means recognizing when it is too much and continuing to maintain a level of physical and emotional wellness, so you can take a second to enjoy the holidays, if that feels right.

Also, I often say you can lean in and lean out of grief. If you need to feel those strong emotions to process through things and feel connections, do that. But also allow yourself to lean out a little bit to enjoy your time with family and friends.

Words of Wisdom

Considering the pandemic, people have experienced increased isolation and that is a loss in itself. It can be a non-death related loss for some, and a death-related loss for others. Having to change holiday traditions or be without certain family members is very difficult, so being able to adapt and find creative ways to still celebrate and honor your family through different traditions is important. Whether it be through virtual candle lightings or Zoom calls, there are so many ways to still celebrate the holidays. I encourage people to be creative and do what feels right as an individual and as a family unit.

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Read the full article in Philadelphia Magazine

Allen-Michael Lewis, MS, LMFT is a Staff Therapist at our Center City Office. He currently sees clients via online therapy. To set up an appointment, you can reach him at alewis@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4206.

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